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There has long been a truism in Iowa presidential politics. If you want to do well in the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses, then you'd better be a supporter of federal government subsidies for the production of ethanol; the bio-fuel made from corn. Traditionally, candidates who opposed ethanol subsidies did so at their own risk.

But this year, with overall federal spending and deficits becoming such a major issue, the political rules regarding ethanol are changing.

NPR's Don Gonyea has more.

DON GONYEA: Go back and listen to Iowa stump speeches from candidates past -Democrat and Republican, frontrunners and long shots - and you'll hear lines that have been music to the ears of the state's corn growers.

Here's George W. Bush in 1999.

President GEORGE W. BUSH (R-Texas, Then-Presidential Candidate): I support ethanol and I support ethanol strongly. And I would support ethanol whether I was here in Iowa or not.

GONYEA: That same year, Al Gore boasted of a tie-breaking vote he cast while presiding over the U.S. Senate as vice president.

Vice President AL GORE (D-Tennessee, Then-Presidential Candidate): And I voted, and we saved ethanol...

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Vice President GORE: ...and Iowa won.

GONYEA: And in 2008, Barack Obama championed ethanol subsidies.

And when someone has spoken out in opposition, it's gotten a lot of attention. Here's Senator John McCain.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (R-Arizona, Then-Presidential Candidate): Ethanol is not worth it. It does not help the consumer. Those ethanol subsidies should be phased out. And everybody here on this stage, if it wasn't for the fact that Iowa is the first caucus state, would share my view that we don't need ethanol subsidies.

GONYEA: But in his two runs for the White House, McCain mostly opted out of campaigning in Iowa, knowing his position made him an unpopular candidate and among the state's caucus goers.

Which brings us to this year, when former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, this past week, used a speech in Iowa to officially announce his candidacy - in the process, he uttered the following.

Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (R-Minnesota, Former Governor): The free market, not freebies from politicians, should decide a company's success. So, as part of a larger reform, we need to phase out all subsidies across all sources of energy and all industries, including ethanol. We simply can't afford them anymore.

GONYEA: Like John McCain, Pawlenty portrayed his blunt talk as truth-telling. Unlike McCain, Pawlenty thinks he can win in Iowa. He believes times have changed enough to allow him to oppose ethanol subsidies.

Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich says he may be right.

Ms. KATHIE OBRADOVICH (Political Columnist, Des Moines Register): It's a different time. Tim Pawlenty is coming in at a time when ethanol industry is mature, and some people think it's even oversaturated.

GONYEA: Combine that with rising gas prices, which make ethanol more competitive, and there's a growing belief - even in Iowa - that the industry can probably handle a gradual phase out, or at least a reduction of subsidies. They key for Iowans, Obradovich says, is that ethanol not be singled out.

Ms. OBRADOVICH: If he had come in and said we're going to cut subsidies for ethanol but, you know, we think big oil should still get their share - that would not have gone over well here.

GONYEA: Still, some other 2012 GOP hopefuls, including Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, continue to voice support for ethanol subsidies.

Republican strategist John Stineman is a veteran of Iowa political battles. He says there is risk for Pawlenty and that he'll need to explain himself.

Mr. JOHN STINEMAN (Republican Strategist): Iowa has a very sophisticated electorate. They're not going to just go on a soundbite. They're going to look at what the nuances of the position are. And, frankly, I think that there's going to be a pretty robust discussion about that during this caucus cycle.

GONYEA: Which means the Iowa caucuses could see something new this time around in the form of a real debate on an issue, where in the past only one position was seen as acceptable.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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